Inhalant abuse: Is your child at risk?

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Inhalant abuse: Is your child at risk?

What's so dangerous about a can of spray paint or deodorant? Plenty. Huffing these and other common household products can provide a quick high. As harmless as it may seem to kids, the risks of huffing and other types of inhalant abuse are real — and potentially lethal.

What are inhalants?

Many ordinary household products can serve as inhalants, including:

  • Hair spray
  • Room deodorizer
  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • Cleaning fluids
  • Spray paint
  • Paint thinner
  • Butane
  • Propane
  • Gasoline

What does it mean to huff an inhalant?

Huffing is sometimes used as a generic term for any type of inhalant abuse. Specifically, however, there are various ways to abuse inhalants:

  • Huffing. To huff an inhalant, you soak a rag in an inhalant and press the rag to your mouth.
  • Sniffing. To sniff an inhalant, you sniff or snort fumes from an aerosol container. You may even spray an aerosol product directly into your nose or mouth.
  • Bagging. To bag an inhalant, you inhale fumes from a product sprayed or poured into a plastic or paper bag.

At first, huffing, sniffing or bagging causes a sense of euphoria. Abusing the inhalant repeatedly over several hours can prolong or intensify the high. For many kids, inhalants provide a cheap and accessible alternative to alcohol — and it may happen more often than you think. In the United States alone, nearly 10 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 have used inhalants at some point, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

What are the risks of inhalant abuse?

The initial euphoria of huffing, sniffing or bagging may be followed by dizziness, slurred speech, and loss of coordination, inhibition and control. Some kids become agitated or irritable. Hallucinations and delusions are possible.

If an inhalant causes the heart to begin working too hard, a rapid, irregular heartbeat (dysrhythmia) may trigger lethal heart failure — even for first-time inhalers. Chronic inhalant abuse can cause weakness, fatigue, and serious liver and kidney damage. Permanent brain damage and hearing loss are possible as well.

Other devastating effects of inhalant abuse may include:

  • Suffocation, when inhalants displace oxygen in the lungs
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Death

What are the warning signs of inhalant abuse?

Inhalant abuse can be easy to conceal. Look for these warning signs:

  • Hidden rags, clothes or empty containers of products that may be abused
  • Chemical odors on breath or clothing
  • Paint or other stains on face, hands or clothing
  • Slurred or incoherent speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Inattentiveness
  • Irritability

What's the best way to prevent inhalant abuse?

To prevent inhalant abuse, talk about it openly. For example:

  • Discuss the risks. Honest discussion can help prevent a tragedy. Talk about what products may be abused and slang terms for inhalants. State the facts clearly. Emphasize that inhalants are deadly chemicals, not a harmless way to get high.
  • Be a good listener. Encourage your child to come to you with questions or concerns.
  • Set expectations. Let your child know that you won't tolerate huffing or other types of inhalant abuse. Remind your child that you love him or her — and safety comes first.
  • Stay involved. Meet your child's friends. Know where your child is and what he or she is doing, especially after school. Support your child's efforts to resist peer pressure.

What if I find my child huffing?

If you discover your child huffing, sniffing or bagging, stay calm. If your child is breathing, move to a well-ventilated area and call the local poison control center. If your child is unconscious or not breathing, seek emergency medical help.

If your child has been abusing inhalants for some time, withdrawal symptoms — sleep disturbances, irritability, nausea, vomiting, sweating, rapid heartbeat, hallucinations or delusions — are possible.

If your child can't stop huffing, sniffing or bagging on his or her own, seek professional help. Start with your child's doctor, a school counselor or a local drug rehabilitation facility. The support of a mental health professional may be valuable as well. With help, your child can end inhalant abuse and learn how to make healthy choices for a lifetime.

Last Updated: 2009-12-18
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